Album Reviews

Lindi Ortega: Little Red Boots

Linda Ortega

Last Gang Records

Things are tight for alt-country female singers in the T.Dot at the moment, if only because there are so many good ones around. This makes it all too easy to overlook up and comers, especially if they don’t have big label support behind them, or Tweeter Nation on their side.

So do yourself a favour; don’t overlook Lindi Ortega. The Toronto native’s been building a fan base in the West End’s hipsterville for the last two years, working up a strong live set along the way.

Little Red boots does a great job of replicating Ortega kicking these tunes live, with all the fire that implies. Up tempo opening track "Little Lie" sounds fresh off the floor, Ortega coming with a countrified vocal then smoothly switches gears for the pop-centric  "When All the Stars Align".

You want geetar hooks? She brings ‘em large especially on “Jimmy Dean”, the title rack and the killer “Blue Bird”, the for-sure charter here.

For the closer, Lindi drops a bigass Patsy Cline-ish vocal on “So Sad”, the perfect amalgam of heartache and defiance, the twin themes defining most of the tunes in the set.

So the overall sound? Lucinda Williams and Neko Case getting drunk in Waylon Jennings studio. Or as the lady herself said;” A roadside motel love affair between old school outlaws and country darlings.’

James Lizzard

SAM ROBERTS BAND: Collider

Collider

Universal

Remember when Sam Roberts was gonna be Bruce Springsteen? Then the bottom fell out of the straight-ahead rock’n'roll market with the advent of the new prog rock (Arcade Fire, The Dears, Patrick Watson), Sam’s last pair of albums landed with a lack of impact.

This one should go far to restore Sam’s star in the heavens of cool.

Much is made of Collider as a return to roots but it's very rhythm oriented in enough places to beg that question. Also, in recent interviews Sam’s been going on about his deep interest in South and West African music of all genres. that he’d been listening to lately,

I guess the rootsy parts would be the easy peasy wide-screen sprawl, the guitar dominance and Roberts’s organic style of song writing. The new stuff’s in the grooves and the way Roberts is now constructing songs around their rhythm pulse. Dude’s writing groove rock, referencing back when Radiohead were a guitar band. 

It isn’t all changeups though; the fanbasers will drool on ‘Longitude’ whose searing layered guitars bring knives to this tale of a politely imploding relationship. Land of Talk vocalist Elizabeth Powell shows up to elevate the things in a duet with Roberts. And Streets of Heaven’ with its Springsteenian title delivers on that promise with solid rock riding on smacking bass lines.

One Hundred Dollars: Songs Of Man

One Hundred Dollars  Cover

Outside

If this is how One Hundred Dollars deals with the sophomore jinx, they should get out and court all other jinxes. Songs Of Man is a ten-song collection of alt-country, which raises the genre bar with both music and lyric.

The production is attentive and sympathetic; most of the effects focus on enhancing and showcasing Simone Schmidt's gravely, haunting voice. Essential, as the band tackles some heavy current issues and hers is the means to do so without coming over all judgemental.

“Black Gold’ looks at the price paid by the Fort McMurray oil workers, far from home and loved ones and beset by all the temptations money can buy. The elegant and sweetly melodic “Where the Sparrows Drop” focuses on a young couple separated by war and what longing and need can do to the strongest bonds. The music’s a mix of either traditional acoustic (Aaron’s Song’) or countrified rock (‘Waiting For Another’) and the band handles either approach with confidence and a love of playing.

It’s all liberally sprinkled with quirky arrangements and surprising time changes to keep things interesting. If they don’t do the trick, Schmidt’s winning ways with the bitter and the sweet will. Check the way she undercuts the classic country tropes of ‘Everybody Wins’ with caustic tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

Snailhouse: Sentimental Gentleman

Snailhouse Cover

Forward Music

Here’s yet another artist from the musical Petri dish that is Montreal except this one is no next new thing. Instead, as member of Wooden Stars and as a soloist Mike Feuerstack has been making music professionally for 15 years.

So why haven’t you heard of him before? Likely because when it comes to public acclaim for thoughtful, intelligent music, he’s closer to Ron Sexsmith than Justin Bieber.

It continues to be a slim market for roots Canadiana, which is the vague slot this collection most comfortably fits. The overall landscape here is atmospheric, broody, downtempo, questioning, with occasional outbursts of Beatlesque pop (‘Great Storyteller’ ‘Daydream’). You’ll be needing to look elsewhere for wicked hooks and bigass choruses. But when it comes to nuanced, introspective tunes, dude has his ducks in a row. 

The title track deserves is central place as touchstone for many of the other songs, a masterful evocation of yearnings with no place to go until maybe tomorrow. ‘Every Day’ is one such as Feuerstack opens up virtually acapella until instruments slowly fold into the weave leaving us with a track that would have fit perfectly on John Cale’s Paris 1919. 

Not everything here reveals its all at first glance and there’s a suspicion this album’s the kind that grows on a body with repeated listening. Come May 24, you’ll be able to test the theory when Sentimental Gentleman drops in Canada.

James Lizzard

Malajube: La Caverne

Dare to Drive

Dare To Care 

The first time I ever heard of these guys was when I stumbled into El Mocambo in Toronto one night and there were some hot, sweaty French guys rocking out on stage. They could do it too; hooky power rock with lotsa grunge garage riffs and loud, loud, loud. So after a while I could hear properly and ok, now I was primed for their English song. Which was gonna be the next one, right? No? Not the one after that either? So I just gave up waiting and danced till somebody Jaegered my Voivod t-shirt.

Since then I’ve seen them every chance I get and they still don’t sing a lick of English and it never really mattered. Because you don’t need to rock out in both official languages. Malajube proves either one will do. 

Which I’m thinking makes them a sweet choice for Canada’s Band now that The Tragically Hip is past it. Maybe les garcons were thinking the same thing in the studio with La Caverne, as it’s their most ambitious work yet. A little more pop than usual, kinda experimental, kinda Euro movie soundtracky and always with the good hook or two close to hand. 

They used to sound kind of like fellow Montrealers Parlovr but this album sounds more like The Dears but without the girl. Oh yeah, except for “Sangsues” which is all anthemic and Arcade Fiery. 

Swollen Members: Dagger mouth

Swollen Members

Suburban Noize

No question it’s a hard road back for Mad Child, ‘cause that hillbilly heroin called oxycontin will put you in the cold, cold ground. Nuff credit to his brothers in the band that they hung with their man all through the valley of quitting that shit and the three-year hiatus involved. 

If y’all haven’t seen it yet, check out the DVD of retrospective album Ten Years of Turmoil to witness Mad Child’s struggle and the band’s dedication to holding steady.

On the one hand, Dagger Mouth is a powerful distillation of all the early elements which have taken the band to its heights. The vivid imagery, the sharp-edged rhymes, the edgy arrangements and Rob The Viking’s pinpoint production are here in full effect.

This time around, all that is subordinate to an atmosphere of foreboding and menace, which Mad Child’s bravura delivery must battle hard to overcome. Or at least fight to a draw.

Dudes are aware of it too. Just check these lines from ‘War Money’; “ I’m a Bluenose, green-eyed, thoroughbred, purebred, double threat, split personality."  Given what Mad Child’s come through, he’s entitled and full marks to him for owning up as a warning to others.

Imaginary Cities: Temporary Resident

Imagine

Hidden Pony 

Experimental soul pop, you say. And coming out of Winnipeg? Gotta check this if only for inadvertent humour content. Well, the laffs are on us as this unlikely combination of Marti  Sarbit's old school soul singer’s voice and a suitcase full of electronic effects often approaches something quite different. 

Ably abetted by the duo’s other half, multi-instrumentalist Rusty (Weakerthans) Matyas, Sarbit moves confidently around Metric-sounding hooky altrock (‘Temporary Resident’) technosoul (‘Say You’) and downright dance tunes, rarely taking a false step. 

"Cherry Blossom Tree" is a pristine example of Nineties slowburn altrock, with its slow and stately build up up to a mind-searing crescendo, sure to make for an attention-getting single.

Some of the song structures and arrangemenst are not so assured however, ‘Purple Heart’ and ‘Manitoba Bossa Nova’  in particular coming over half-baked , as if the pair tired of the songs brefore they arrived at a satisfactory conclusion abd just kinda let then run out.

Could that be because the album is something of a rush job, coming hot on the heels of the announcement  Imaginary Cities will be opening for alt legends The Pixies for their entre North American tour?

Steve Dawson: Nightshade

Nightshade

Black Hen 

Every now and then, when not busy producing other artists, Steve Dawson finds time to drop an album of his own material. This one’s number five and if you’ve never heard the man’s work, it’s as good a place to introduce yourself as any.

Dawson deals in a revival style of roots Americana, somewhere between the stripped down r’n’b of Catl and the full-on swamp grooves of Rockit 88. Though a little darker in tone than previous outings, Nightshade doesn’t slip into American Gothic if only on account of the sparkling playing, slick production, Dawson’s tale-spinning skills and a certain West Coast charm.

‘Course, he’s a well lauded string bender and on Nightshade he works out on acoustic, electric, steel, national and Weissenborn guitars, the last named known for their rich bottom end. Along for the ride are Vancouver genre stars Chris Gestrin, Keith Lowe and Geoff Hicks. Singer Jill Barber and backups Jeanne Tolmioe and Alice Dawson bring feminine warmth and fine harmonies to the proceedings 

A good thing as Dawson’s delivery tends to lean heavily on the laidback and languid. This fits most of the material but ‘Torn and Frayed’, a tense tale of a relationship on the point of exploding and the title track, a cowboy movie-type tale of a desperate man on the run, could have used a more intense take.

That aside, the rest adds up to a fine collection of rootsy blues that could garner greater mainstream attention for Dawson.

Dirty Beaches: Badlands

Dirty Beaches Badlands

Zoo

While Alex Zhang Hungtai is adamant that Badlands isn’t his alternate soundtrack for the 1973 flick of the same name, he does cop to an attitudinal similarity Both projects offer a skewed, deconstructed take on pop culture, eyes firmly fixed on that point on the horizon where art blends into life. Except in this case, it’s his dad’s life.

‘Dirty Beaches’ Hungtai’s mashups have gained him a global following and this one won’t disappoint. The framework’s primitive rockabilly, Cinema Noir riffs, fuzzed-out artpunk and alienated dissonance a la The Fall. Being that this is DB’s first album to get a wide release, he’s eased off the noise some, dropping in surprisingly crooner-like vocals to fill out the vibe. It’s all nicely grounded by the dirty, lo-fi production dude steeps everything in.

As befitting a showcase album, this is Dirty Beaches at his most accessible, with the Presleyesque rattle and shake of ‘Sweet 17’, the Phil Spectorish ‘A Hundred Highways” and the full-on croon of ‘True Blue’ providing easy points of entry. But it wouldn’t be a DB joint without its share of uncompromising black holes, in this case the instrumentals ‘Black Nylon’ and ‘Hotel’ which will piss you off and leave you WTF, especially if you don’t dig John Cage.

MAE MOORE: Folklore: Poetical License

Mae Moore

Having gone back to the land ten years ago, pop singer Mae Moore now returns to music in a mood as mellow as you’d expect from an organic farmer on B.C.'s Gulf Islands.

And with likely very different expectations too. The likeable melodies and pop-centric style, which drew Juno nominations, chart hits and a spot on the movie Top Gun’s soundtrack is absent here. 

In its place, the title says it all. Moore came out of the university folk scene and returns to her roots here bringing a worldly sensibility, which informs without being overwrought. New to the mix is a greater confidence in messing about with jazz elements, especially in the arrangements.

When the brass and strings come in, it’s more likely through a side door, reinforcing the jazz/folk meld and bringing to mind that other famous painting, folk jazzing Lady of the Canyon.

Ok, the dulcimer doesn’t help in setting her apart; what does is that Mooré’s vocals is less idiosyncratic than Mitchell’s, in a good way

The production is tasteful, the arrangements inclusive, the environmentally centered lyrics often served with a twist of wry. Check ‘ When Constellations Align’, a tune about a love so large it takes the Milky Way to serve as appropriate canopy 

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